March 17 – March 23, 2017

In the markets, even more so than in life, confidence is key. The American retail apocalypse. China is stirring a hornet’s nest.

Headlines

FT – S&P 500 posts steepest slide since October 3/21. The S&P 500 index finally broke its 109-day streak of not having a 1% drop in a trading day.

NYT – In Berlin, a Grass-Roots Fight Against Gentrification as Rents Soar 3/18. “Under pressure from a growing grass-roots movement, the city authorities have put into effect a slate of measures, including rent caps, a partial ban on vacation rentals, development-free zones and increased social housing subsidies.”

FT – Sovereign wealth funds move beyond trophy assets 3/19. No longer able to rely on the continuous cash flows of $100 a barrel oil, sovereign wealth funds have sharpened their pencils in their underwriting standards as they seek to generate higher investment returns for their citizens.

Yahoo Finance – Sears says there’s ‘substantial doubt’ it can stay in business 3/21. The company can sell its remaining key brands (Kenmore and Diehard); however, on an operating basis the company continues to lose cash.

Bloomberg – Record Number of Fund Managers Say U.S. Equities Are Overvalued 3/21. “Fund managers now say stocks are the most overvalued they have been in nearly 20 years, according to a survey done last week by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.”

Special Reports / Opinion Pieces

Briefs

  • Rosamond Hutt of the World Economic Forum illustrated that 92% of the world’s population is breathing unsafe air.
    • “An estimated 92% of the world’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds safety limits, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)…”
    • “Parts of Africa, Eastern Europe, India, China and the Middle East are the biggest regional danger spots. The WHO says almost all air pollution-related deaths (94%) occur in low-and middle-income countries.”
    • Image from WSJ – Daily Shot 3/20
  • Pilita Clark of the Financial Times highlighted the positive news that the sharp drop in US emissions kept global levels flat in 2016.
    • “Climate-warming emissions from burning fossil fuels have remained flat for a third year in a row in a development that suggests a shift to a greener global economy is happening faster than previously thought.”
    • “A striking drop in carbon pollution in the US, where emissions fell back to what they were in 1992, helped to keep global CO2 levels in 2016 virtually unchanged from the two previous years, the International Energy Agency said.”
    • “‘This is a very welcome development,’ said Fatih Birol, IEA executive director. ‘It appears we now have the first signs of an established trend of flat emissions as a result of natural gas replacing coal in major markets and renewables becoming more and more affordable.'”
    • “Mr. Birol said it was especially significant that emissions stayed flat during a period of sustained global economic growth, currently about 3% per annum.”
    • “Mr. Birol cautioned that it was still unclear whether global emissions had peaked after surging for much of the past 60 years. ‘I think it’s too soon to say [the levelling-off] is permanent but compared with two or three years ago I am much more optimistic,’ he said.”
  • Gabriel Wildau of the Financial Times covered the increase in measures by the Chinese governments seeking to slow the growing property bubble.
    • “Big Chinese cities (Beijing, Guangzhou, Zhengzhou, Changsha, and Shijiazhuang) have launched a new round of lending curbs and purchase restrictions in an effort to cool overheated property markets, as official media warn that some have veered towards a bubble.”
    • “At the conclusion of the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament last week, the government pledged to ‘contain excessive home price rises in hot markets.'”
    • “Nationally, home prices were 11.8% higher in February than a year earlier, following 12.2% growth in January, according to Reuters’ calculations based on the government’s 70-city survey. But other indicators suggest that the previous round of property tightening measures, which began last autumn, has not had the desired impact.”
    • “Property investment grew at its fastest pace in two years in January and February at an annual rate of 8.9%, while sales accelerated to 25.1% growth in floor space terms.”
    • “‘There is no doubt that in some cities the property market’s ‘high fever’ hasn’t subsided, and there are even signs of an evolution towards a bubble,’ read a Monday analysis in Financial News, a newspaper owned by the People’s Bank of China, the central bank. ‘The hidden risks and potential damage cannot be ignored.'”
  • Aaron Back of The Wall Street Journal pointed out the negative trends in the auto lending business.
    • “The auto-finance sector has taken a bad turn. An investor update on Tuesday from auto lender Ally Financial, formerly the auto-lending arm of General Motors, added to building evidence that trend lines are negative in the industry. That ranges from rising defaults to falling used-car prices.”
    • “The National Automobile Dealers Association sparked concern last week with a report that its used-car price index fell by 8% from a year earlier in February to its lowest level since 2010. NADA cited several factors for the decline, including a higher supply of used cars hitting the market, better sales incentives for new vehicles and even a delay in the mailing of tax-refund checks.”

Graphics

WSJ – Daily Shot: FRED – Multifamily Housing Permit Issuance 3/16

“Multifamily housing permits, while volatile, have stalled over the past couple of years. Part of the reason for the lack of growth has been a pullback in financing, as banks become uneasy with this space.”

WSJ – Daily Shot: FRED – Multifamily Housing Under Construction 3/16

However a lot of inventory is coming to market.

WSJ – Daily Shot: Cities with High percentage of Multifamily Housing Permits 3/16

WSJ – Daily Shot: Americans on Food Stamps 3/16

“It’s been almost a decade since the Great Recession but the number of Americans on food stamps remains elevated.”

WSJ – Daily Shot: US Per Capita Consumption of Soft Drinks 3/16

FT – China treads closer to a day of debt reckoning – Izabella Kaminska 3/16

WSJ – Daily Shot: Italian House Price Growth 3/17

Want to buy an Italian villa?

Bloomberg – Manhattan & Brooklyn Real Estate Hot Spots – Oshrat Carmiel 3/20

WSJ – Barriers to Trade Are Multiplying Fast – Anjani Trivedi 3/20

“Some 2,200 antitrade measures like higher tariffs, subsidies and requirements for governments to buy locally are now in place globally – fourfold increase since 2010 – according to the World Trade Organization. On a broader definition, governments have taken some 3,500 antitrade steps since the global financial crisis, many of which were supposed to be temporary, according to Global Trade Alert, an independent initiative that monitors trade policies.”

WSJ – Daily Shot: US Household debt to disposable income 3/21

eia – Record precipitation, snowpack in California expected to increase hydro generation in 2017 – 3/22

Credit Suisse – The Incredible Shrinking Universe of Stocks – Michael Mauboussin, Dan Callahan, Darius Majd 3/22

FT – Debt piles add to risk for China’s property groups – Yuan Yang and Jennifer Hughes 3/22

Featured

*Note: bold emphasis is mine, italic sections are from the articles.

America’s Confidence Economy. Mohamed A. El-Erian. Project Syndicate. 20 Mar. 2017.

Life – the confidence game.

“Financial markets seem convinced that the recent surge in business and consumer confidence in the US economy will soon be reflected in ‘hard’ data, such as GDP growth, business investment, consumption, and wages. But economists and policymakers are not so sure. Whether their doubts are vindicated will matter for both the United States and the world economy.”

“Donald Trump’s election as US president has triggered a surge in positive economic sentiment, because he pledged that his administration would aggressively pursue the policy trifecta of deregulation, tax cuts and reform, and infrastructure construction. Republican majorities in both houses of Congress reinforced the positive sentiment, as they signaled that Trump would not face the kind of paralyzing gridlock that Barack Obama confronted for most of his presidency.”

“The surge in business and consumer sentiment reflects an assumption that is deeply rooted in the American psyche: that deregulation and tax cuts always unleash transformative pro-growth entrepreneurship. (To some outside the US, it is an assumption that sometimes looks a lot like blind faith.)”

“In his groundbreaking General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes referred to ‘animal spirits’ as ‘the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism, rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic.'”

“But sentiment is not always an accurate gauge of actual economic developments and prospects.”

“So far, the exuberant reaction of markets to Trump’s victory – all US stock indices have reached multiple record highs – has not been reflected in ‘hard data.’ Moreover, economic forecasters have made only modest upward revisions to their growth projections.”

“It is not surprising that equity investors have responded to the surge in animal spirits by attempting to run ahead of a possible uptick in economic performance. After all, they are in the business of anticipating developments in the real economy and the corporate sector. In any case, they believe that they can quickly reverse their portfolio positions should their expectations change.”

“That is not that case for companies investing in new plants and equipment, which are less likely to change their behavior until announcements begin to be translated into real policies.”

“It is in this context that the economy awaits a solid timeline for policy announcements to evolve into detailed design and durable implementation.”

“If improved confidence in the US economy does not translate into stronger hard data, unmet expectations for economic growth and corporate earnings could cause financial-market sentiment to slump, fueling market volatility and driving down asset prices. In such a scenario, the US engine could sputter, causing the entire global economy to suffer, especially if these economic challenges prompt the Trump administration to implement protectionist measures.”

“The US is on relatively strong footing to achieve higher economic growth. Indeed, by animating the economy’s animal spirits, the Trump administration has laid the groundwork for the private sector to do a lot of the heavy lifting. But there is more to do. Unless the Trump administration can work well with a cooperative Congress to translate market-motivating intentions into well-calibrated actions soon, the lagging hard data risks dragging down confidence, creating headwinds that extend well beyond financial volatility.”

The retail apocalypse has officially descended on America. Hayley Peterson. Business Insider. 21 Mar. 2017.

“Thousands of mall-based stores are shutting down in what’s fast becoming one of the biggest waves of retail closures in decades.”

“More than 3,500 stores are expected to close in the next couple of months.”

“Some retailers are exiting the brick-and-mortar business altogether and trying to shift to an all-online model.”

“For example, Bebe is closing all its stores – about 170 – to focus on increasing its online sales, according to a Bloomberg report. The Limited also recently shut down all of its stores, but it still sells merchandise online.”

“Others, such as Sears and JCPenney, are aggressively paring down their store counts to unload unprofitable locations and try to staunch losses.”

“Sears is shutting down about 10% of its Sears and Kmart locations [not to mention their very existence as a ‘going concern’ is at stake], or 150 stores, and JCPenney is shutting down about 14% of its locations, or 138 stores.”

“According to many analysts, the retail apocalypse has been a long time coming in the US, where stores per capita far outnumber that of any other country.”

“The US has 23.5 square feet of retail space per person, compared with 16.4 square feet in Canada and 11.1 square feet in Australia, the next two countries with the most retail space per capita, according to a Morningstar report from October.”

Of course all of this is not good for the malls. The immediate outcome of closed stores is the drop in rental income; however, when the anchors (i.e. Sears and JCPenney) close, co-tenancy clauses can be triggered – basically enabling other tenants to leave. Further, the queue of suitable replacement tenants isn’t as long as it used to be. So, some malls (particularly the C- and D-rated ones) are on the path to closure.

Regardless, don’t interpret this to be the apocalypse that the title describes – there is still a need for retailers.

China stokes grievance against Seoul at its peril. FT View. Financial Times. 22 Mar. 2017.

“Faced with the menace of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang, Seoul has allowed the US to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield on its soil. China claims the weapons system’s radar will enable the US to see deep into Chinese territory, thereby tilting the strategic balance in the region and undermining Beijing’s own military capabilities.”

“This is certainly part of the rationale behind Washington’s plan to deploy the shield. The US is essentially telling Beijing that it is fed up with China’s lack of action in reining in its client state. If Beijing does not want Thaad to be deployed then it should do more to curb provocative aggression by North Korea.”

“Instead, the Communist Party has blanketed Chinese state media with anti-Korean vitriol, harassed South Korean businesses, stopped Chinese tourists from travelling to Korea and even allowed schoolchildren to be indoctrinated through mass rallies and boycotts of Korean products.”

“Korean supermarket chain Lotte, which provided some land for the deployment of Thaad, has borne the brunt of the Chinese attacks. As many as 87 of its 99 stores in China have been temporarily or permanently closed, including many that have been targeted for spurious ‘fire safety’ violations. This behavior may violate World Trade Organization rules. Seoul has already requested that the WTO looks into China’s actions.”

“The Chinsese government has tried to distance itself from the protests against South Korea by arguing that they are simply a reflection of public opinion. But all forms of public protest in China are effectively banned, except those that happen to rail against the latest foreign enemy that party leaders are annoyed at.”

Careful instigating a mob.

Other Interesting Articles

Bloomberg Businessweek

The Economist

 

Bloomberg – PBOC Said to Inject Funds After Missed Interbank Payments 3/21

Bloomberg – Ray Dalio Says Populism May Be a Bigger Deal Than Monetary and Fiscal Policy 3/22

FT – A blind spot masks the danger signs in finance 3/16

FT – Swift severs remaining North Korean links to global banking 3/16

FT – Surge of foreign buying builds case for China bond index inclusion 3/17

FT – Capital Group takes on the passive investors 3/20

FT – Investors grow more adventurous in their search for income 3/20

FT – Chinese cinemas punished for box office fraud 3/23

Guardian – Has the tech bubble peaked? Signs that the startup boom may be fizzling 3/17

Knowledge@Wharton – The Economic Toll of High Suicide Rates in Japan and South Korea 3/20

NYT – While Scolding Trump, Mexico Seeks to Curtail Citizens’ Rights 3/16

NYT – How ‘Consumer Relief’ After Mortgage Crisis Can Enrich Big Banks 3/17

NYT – Gripes About Obamacare Aside, Health Insurers Are in a Profit Spiral 3/18

NYT – Arctic’s Winter Sea Ice Drops to Its Lowest Recorded Level 3/22

WP – Secret Service asked for $60 million extra for Trump-era travel and protection, documents show 3/22

WSJ – Bond-Yield Rebound Poses a Threat to Stock Rally 3/19

WSJ – With the World’s Most Billionaires, China Has Its Own Populism Problem 3/20

WSJ – Cities Restore Lost Streets, Local Charm After Razing Failed Malls 3/20

WSJ – Blackstone Looks to Cash Out of European Warehouse Platform 3/21

WSJ – Tax Overhaul Threatens Affordable-Housing Deals 3/21

WSJ – Jared Kushner’s White House Role Complicates Skyscraper Deal 3/21

WSJ – Used-Car Prices Put Auto Finance in a Pickle 3/21

 

 

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